Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Neuromancing the Code: When IT Changed

Posted on | December 27, 2010 | No Comments

During the 1980s, a different sort of conversation about computers and data networking emerged. At the time, I was an undergraduate doing an internship researching Asian computerization at the East-West Center in Hawaii, and I remember the transition. The personal computer with its IBM clones was becoming popular, and the Apple Macintosh held most of the public’s tech attention with their associated meanings of personal empowerment and creativity.

Computers were emerging as popular artifacts for the masses and becoming more powerful each year. Information technologies (IT), in general, were going through dramatic changes and needed new languages and modes of understanding. This post discusses how the cyberpunk genre began contributing new forms of understanding to the “codes” that had linguistically determined what was called “IT.” In particular, the term “cyberspace” began circulating as a collector and conveyor of new meanings increasingly associated with the new data networks.

Concurrently, telecommunications went through a conceptual transformation. Long the linguistic domain of electrical engineers and Washington DC lawyers, the dramatic technical advances required new language and forms of understanding. Terms like telematics and informatics emerged. Both words recognized that digital technologies were changing the electronic environment, but telecommunications people preferred the former while computer people used the latter.

Artificial intelligence (AI) was also beginning to be popularized through movies like Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984). The TerminatorAI became a policy issue with the revelation that the Japanese were investing heavily in the “Fifth Generation” AI project. Also, it was recognized that advanced AI technologies would be needed for “Star Wars,” President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to defend the US against nuclear attack. The US response was the NSFNET, a 56K backbone network connecting supercomputers around the country. Also, it was recognized that advanced AI technologies would be needed for “Star Wars,” President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to defend the US against nuclear attack. Initially, an obscure research network called the ARPANET, with increased investment through the National Science Foundation and the concurrent mandate to use TCP/IP protocols, the connecting fibers would become the Internet.

By the decade’s later years, the notion of “cyberspace” began circulating. Its meaning varied, but the continuing developments and adoption of digital network technologies and the megacomputing abilities of the new microprocessors spurred its cultural motion.

Cyberspace was mostly connected with the “virtual reality” technologies that combined high-resolution goggles with various gloves, pressure suits, and other physical equipment to simulate the visual world and the haptic experiences associated with interacting with it. While some dial-up networking existed, it was still a few years before hypertext protocols enabled the World Wide Web, and people were unsure how interactions would occur in this new electronic environment. Cyberspace suggested at least a disruption of the traditional telecommunications environment – voice calls, emails, and television.

These simulated environments gained subcultural attention, mainly through the works of one author. William Gibson coined cyberspace to describe the electronic “consensual hallucination” that the characters in his award-winning novel Neuromancer (1984) used to participate in the networked “matrix,” another term he pioneered in his fictional narrative that posited a near-future scenario in which the new electronic spaces become dominant. He continued the exploration in two subsequent books, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988).

In the trilogy, “console cowboys” connect to the network by “jacking in.” Velcro-held “trodes” attached to their heads link their minds to the electronic telecommunications matrix. Somewhat like a flight simulator, the cowboy experiences a vast simulated space scattered with geometric shapes representing institutional databanks such as the “green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America.”[2] Their objective is primarily to participate in the “biz,” the combination of cyberspace and street economies of Gibson’s dystopic future scenarios.

The novels captured the spirit of the times and imagination of many of the technology-minded. Their popularity rocketed the author to special cult status, as evidenced in a cameo performance in the televised Oliver Stone mini-series Wild Palms (1993), a story roughly about the near-future use of virtual reality in the broadcast industry for political purposes. The actual William Gibson was introduced by Sex in the City‘s Kim Cattrall as the man who coined the term cyberspace. To which he replied, “And they won’t let me forget it.”[3] The scene is shown below.

As Gibson alluded in one of his short stories published in Cyberspace. First Steps by Michael (Ed). Benedikt (1993):

    Assembled the word cyberspace from small and readily available components of language. Neologic spasm: the primal act of pop poetics. Preceding any concept whatever. Slick and hollow–awaiting received meaning. All I did: folded words as taught. Now other words accrete in the interstices.[4]

In retrospect, Gibson’s articulation of electronic networks’ cultural and political dimensions seemed to have entered a discursive void where engineers, lawyers, and technocrats had dominated the only language able to talk about computers and telecommunications. Cyberspace, as a term, became a new way of conceiving the telecommunications network, one with artistic, cultural, and political dimensions. It soon rocketed to the status of a social currency.

Cyberspace, as a term, was elevated to a unique socio-economic position. As the commercial, entertainment, financial, and productive realms of diverse countries and regions began being woven together through the world’s new telecommunications grid, the term circulated as a new “symbolic third,” a type of money that found its way into discussions about IT and telecommunications. In doing so, it shined a new light on the problems and possibilities of IT. No longer just the domain of gigantic computer centers run by lab-coated technocrats, cyberspace suggested the possibilities of a new economy, a new democracy, and new ways for people to connect and maintain relationships.

Although its value deflated significantly after the Internet and its World Wide Web became popular, cyberspace terminology helped change the perception of a technological infrastructure that had been the domain of staid telecommunications (AT&T and the RBOCs) companies and Washington lawyers.

Soon, the Internet presented a new domain for cyberspace – global e-commerce. Business discourse and particularly the “” phenomenon that emerged with the WWW dominated the narrative. Cyberspace went further into the crevices of academic talk, arts, and political discourse. But it also migrated to the military where it found a new home. Cyberspace became a domain of international security.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2010, Dec 27). Neuromancing the Code: When IT Changed.



[1] Quote from Cyberscribe. (1991) Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Production. By Producer/Director Frances-Mary Morrison, Editor Jacques Milette.
[2] Part of a quote from William Gibson’s (1984) Neuromancer. (New York: Ace Books) p. 52. “Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.”
[3] Wild Palms was a Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. production which was aired in the US as a 6 hour mini-series the week of May 16-22, 1993. It was adapted from a long-running adult comic strip in the magazine Details.
[4] As part of William Gibson’s short story “Academy Leader,” in Benedikt, M. (1991) Cyberspace: First Steps. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) pp. 27-29.



Anthony J. Pennings, PhD has been on the NYU faculty since 2001 teaching digital economics, information systems management, and comparative political economy.


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